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Cowboys vs Jaguars: John Stephens, Juanyeh Thomas headline the UDFA stars

John Stephens and Juanyeh Thomas carry over strong Cowboys training camps into the preseason game against the Jaguars.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Football is BACK! We got our first glimpse of this year’s Dallas Cowboys on Saturday. Though the Cowboys failed to get the win, losing to the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars 28-23, the L in the loss column isn’t as important as what we learned about the reserve players on this team. Sixth-round rookie running back Deuce Vaughn showed off his versatility as a runner and a pass catcher. Top draft choice Mazi Smith saw extended action and, as advertised, clogged the interior, stopping inside runs.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys starting offensive line against Jacksonville didn’t have a good outing, making things especially difficult for quarterback Cooper Rush. All in all, the positives outweighed the negatives as we gained a better understanding of the makeup of this team near the bottom of the roster, namely the undrafted players. A few of them seized the opportunity to impress the coaches and are the undrafted stars of yesterday’s game.

Honorable mentions: Dennis Houston and Isaiah Land

In a drive aptly dubbed the “Deuce Vaughn drive,” Dennis Houston came up big. His 11-yard gain on 3rd-and-8 deep in the Cowboys territory kickstarted the Cowboys’ drive. He followed that up with a catch and run for 17 yards.

Isaiah Land was disruptive against Jacksonville. It didn’t matter who lined up across from him; he was explosive off the line of the scrimmage. Land recorded 19 sacks in 2021 as a junior at Florida A&M, and it’s evident why he was so productive in college. Land drew three holding penalties against the Jaguars. He was on fire.

John Stephens, Tight end

John Stephens is forcing the Cowboys coaching staff into a difficult decision. The Cowboys have a surplus of talented tight ends and appear to have found another. During the broadcast, Isaiah Stanback couldn’t help but gush about the converted wide receiver, and who could blame him? Stephens has adequate size, but because he’s such a good athlete he can separate from bigger defenders.

The play of the game for Stephens was his touchdown on the final drive of the game. Facing a crucial 4th-and-11 deep in Jaguars territory, the Cowboys had to convert to keep their slim chances of winning alive. Stephens ran his route up the seam and, intelligently, slightly nudges linebacker Dequan Jackson to create separation at the top of his route. Will Grier takes advantage of the passing lane Stephens presents him, and Stephens does the rest, barreling in the end zone for the late score.

Stephens led all players in receptions and receiving yards for the game, with five catches for 56 yards. He makes plays daily that will make it hard for the coaches to leave him off the 53-man roster. Stephens had a great game.

Juanyeh Thomas, Safety

Juanyeh Thomas felt like a true long shot to make the roster when training camp started. Since then, he has shown up several days at practice and made plays on the football. Against Jacksonville, he made another. Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence tried to test the Cowboys’ secondary deep on the game’s first drive, but Thomas would have none of it. Tracking the ball over his head, Thomas snatched the ball out of the air to give the Cowboys excellent field position.

What is interesting is that Thomas and fellow safety Markquese Bell got a lot of playing time on Saturday. Factoring in how well Thomas has played up until this point and the time missed by Bell during training camp, you get the sense that Thomas and Bell are in direct competition for a spot on the roster. Next week’s game against Seattle is huge for Thomas’ chances to draw even with Bell, if not overtake him in the evaluation of the coaching staff.

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